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To some Palestinian children the antidote to Israeli occupation is Israeli prison

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A, now 18, demonstrates a position he was restrained in for hours at a time many times during the course of his 25 months in prison. (Photo: Jo Ehrlich)

Two boys from Dheisheh were arrested the other day at the Beit Jala/Jerusalem checkpoint. I read the news in Ma’an. The description of the arrest reads:

“Two youth from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem were in fact detained, the military spokeswoman said, noting they were transferred to Israeli border police. She said the two were carrying a "15cm knife and a Japanese knife" respectively.”

This description clearly leaves much to be desired. Ok, two knives, one very small and what is a “Japanese knife”? But more to the point, what exactly did they do with the knives? Stab someone? Attempt to stab someone? Get caught trying to sneak the knives into Israel?

I wasn’t able to find any more information on the Internet so I asked some friends in Dheisheh if they knew what had happened. They knew about the incident of course, one of the boys lived on their street.

What happened? I asked

They brought knives to the checkpoint my friend Ahmad answered.

And what did they do with them? I asked.

They just brought them to the checkpoint he said. They didn’t want to do anything with them.

Then, why? I asked incredulous.

They wanted to get arrested. They think that maybe jail is better then the refugee camp. They see the boys who come back, who get some money and respect. They don’t realize what it is like in prison. He finished.

Shocking, but this type of incident, youth purposely attempting to get arrested by Israel, is not an isolated phenomenon. Most notably perhaps were the teenage girls Bara’a M. and Samah S. Bara’a was released along with 18 other women this past fall, in a “show of good faith” by Israel as part of the Shalit negotiations. At the time of her release she had served all but one month of her eleven month sentence. The two were fourteen when they were arrested.

Samah S.’s statement, part of a repository of statements from child Palestinian prisoners published by Defense For Children International begins:

“I was born on 25 April 1994. I am in the ninth grade.

On 1 December 2008, a day before I was arrested, I went to Bara’a M’s house and asked her to find a way to get imprisoned. I told her that we could go to Qalandiya checkpoint and take knives with us so that the soldiers would see us and arrest us.” (PDF, page 86)

As bad as the situation is under occupation, the fantasy that life will be better in an Israeil jail seems to be misplaced. Recently I sat down and spoke with a young man, also from Dheisheh Refugee Camp, who had just been released from prison.

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A. recreates another position he was restrained in while held in an Israeli prison. (Photo: Jo Ehrlich)

The story of his 25 months in prison is brutal. Told to me in his cousin’s living room, over many cups of coffee it overturned any illusions I had of what prison in the “democracy” of Israel looked like. My closest reference point was what I have read of the conditions at Abu Ghraib, not surprising I guess, military occupations tend to share certain characteristics. Arrested at 16, his interrogation, “trial” and time in prison were marked by coercion (his interrogators repeatedly attempted to implicate him in crimes he did not commit), a foggy legal process (he was held in detention for 17 months before he was sentenced) and experienced what could only be described as torture (guards would regularly beat prisoners, wake them by douses of ice water and throw tear gas bombs into the prison yard). Although this sounds extreme it is absolutely in line with research into the conditions for Palestinian’s in Israeli prisons documented by B’tselem and Defense for Children International.

What does this tell us about the occupation? The obvious question is what must the day-to-day life be like under occupation that some Palestinian children think Israeli prison might be a better option. But the question that interests me more is what are the goals of the Israeli state that they find it in their interest to arrest and convict children arrested under these pretenses?

Jo Ehrlich is a graduate student from the United States. She is currently living, working and learning in Dheisheh refugee camp in occupied Palestine.

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